Fifty years ago, the most common reason for arrests of gay people was violation of sodomy laws.
Over the years, the reasons why LGBT people have been arrested has changed, but the utility of arrest expungement has not, say experts.
Expungement, or the process by which a person can wipe away arrests from their records, has been used for years by LGBT activists and advocates alike to battle discriminatory arrest histories and give marginalized queer people a fresh start.
"It's one of my favorite things as a lawyer," said Owen Daniel-McCarter, project attorney for the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois.
Experts agree that arrest history, even without convictions, can create significant barriers for people trying to start school, find housing or get a job.
Expungement offers erasure of those arrests, but not necessarily convictions. For LGBT communities who have historically faced higher arrest rates than straight peers, such records can present serious problems.
Before the early '60s, sodomy laws made it illegal for two men to have sex. William B. Kelley, a longtime LGBT Chicago activist, said that arrests for sodomy were frequent during those years, but convictions were rarely made.
"They could be used as blackmail levers," said Kelley, adding that they often prevented gays from getting business licenses.
Today, few who were arrested under sodomy law are still alive. Illinois was the first state to repeal such laws in 1962, but their legacy lived on.
For years, said Kelley, gay people were targeted and arrested for public indecency, prostitution and disorderly conduct. Numerous community activists have also racked up arrests for protest actions over the years.
Even if the arrests had no basis, such information followed people.
Regardless of whether or not charges are dismissed later, arrest records remain unless they are expunged. Such records have meant considerable challenges for LGBT people who already faced discrimination in areas of housing and employment.
Daniel-McCarter said that in his line of work, more queer people ask for help expunging arrests than any other service.
"It creates so much of a barrier that sometimes people don't even realize," Daniel-McCarter said.
Today it is queer youth, often kicked out of their homes for coming out, who face high rates of arrest.
That National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimated in 2007 that between 5,000-10,000 LGBT youth in Illinois are homeless. According to Lakeview Action Coalition, Chicago has just 120 shelter beds for youth.
Lynnea Karlic, youth program vocational manager at Center on Halsted, said that queer homeless youth in particular face so many obstacles, that a single arrest can derail many people's chances of putting together a life.
"It's just a trickle effect," she said. "It's another reason to discriminate against people."
Landlords and employers are not legally allowed to discriminate against applicants on the basis of arrest records. However, Karlic and Daniel-McCarter agree that such discrimination is commonplace. People with arrest records are regularly denied housing and jobs, making it hard to start fresh.
One of the issues, said Karlic, is that few young people and adults understand they can expunge such records. Further, the process is complicated.
"Just to have the information about how to go about it is really important for people's basic needs," she said. "There are already a lot of barriers for queer individuals."
Every year the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County holds an expungement seminar for the general public.
On Aug. 25, the clerk's office is bringing that seminar to Center on Halsted at the request of Center CEO Modesto "Tico" Valle.
"We all deserve the opportunity to be more productive members of the community," said Valle, in a press release about the seminar. "We're glad to work with the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court to empower individuals to do that."
The seminar comes at a time when Lakeview is buzzing with talk about queer youth and crime, after a series of violent incidents this summer struck up conversations about young people and racism in the neighborhood.
Clerk Dorothy Brown expressed excitement about the seminar in a statement to Windy City Times. "We fervently believe that everyone deserves a second chance to be law-abiding, productive members of society," Brown said.
Daniel-McCarter believes that everyone who is able should attempt to expunge records. However, he added that for those dealing with immigration issues, expungement can create new problems.
Reservations for the Center on Halsted expungement seminar must be made by Aug. 19. For more information on necessary documents and reservations, call 773-472-6469.